Like most people in the West familiar with ‘African’ wax print, Anne Grosfilley was initially surprised to learn that her assumptions of wax print textile being authentically African, was incorrect. As a high school student in the late 80s trying to buy wax print fabric at a market in Burkino Faso, she was asked whether she preferred ‘English’ or ‘Dutch’ prints, thus revealing these fabrics’ complicated global origins. This moment sparked a life-long passion for textiles, a subsequent career in ethnology and the publication of her book African Wax Print Textiles. While there have been previous books written on the subject of wax prints, most notably a 2010 book by Magie Relph African Wax Print: A Textile Journey, Grosfilley’s study is the first to do an in-depth analysis of the fabric’s past – looking at its global distribution as a result of European imperialism – and its contemporary popularity.
Image: Ghanaian fashion designer Atto Tetteh wearing garments made from Simone Post's Bubble Block wax print fabric
In the book, Grosfilley examines a number of designs that were originally developed by European producers to make these textiles seem more ‘local’ in an African market. Hence, images of fly-whisks, sceptres, or the royal stool under an umbrella-shaped canopy may have originated with traditional chiefdoms, but are still popular designs in marketplaces today. Similarly, the so-called alphabet prints, developed and still produced by Vlisco, have grown out of the first literacy programmes in West Africa brought by the French and the British and until today signify social and educational advancement. To get a full picture of the true popularity of wax fabrics today, Grosfilley spends much time analysing how these fabrics are bought and sold in African markets and what gets taken to tailors to be made into bespoke clothing. This is perhaps one of the most interesting sections in this book as it introduces us to the so-called Nana Benzes, saleswomen that have become spectacularly rich trading in wax-prints. These women head entire chains of supply and demand from the capitals to small markets, and theirs is a story of female tenacity and influence: the most powerful Nana Benzes become advisors to wax print designers and producers, and most importantly, it is the Nana Benzes who often ‘name’ the designs, establishing an immediate status on certain designs but also revealing trends and narratives of a given place and time. So for instance, ‘Nkrumah’s pencil’, ‘Kofi Annan’s brain’, ‘Michele Obama’s handbag’, and others are richly expressive.
Grosfilley moves on to look at how these fabrics are used and hybridised in popular culture, in magazines and by fashion designers in Africa and the West. She concludes by mentioning artists like Samuel Fosso and Omar Victor Diop who have used, or as with Yinka Shonibare continues to use these fabrics in their artworks. In their hands, the ambiguous status of these fabrics is an especially apt way to negotiate the complex networks that have defined black identities.
Anne Grosfilley was one of our panel of experts who presented at our African Wax Print event and film screening this week. Thanks to all those who attended and to all our speakers.